Neil's News

Food for Thought

30 September 2010

[Michael Pollan at Google] Michael Pollan dropped by Google yesterday and gave a talk based on his book "Food Rules". I read the book a couple of weeks ago and was interested to hear what he had to say. My conclusion is that Michael Pollan is for food what homeopathy is for medicine -- but in a good way. Let me explain.

When anesthetics were first discovered doctors went wild with excitement. Finally they could open people and poke around inside without listening to all that screaming. During this initial phase of experimentation the death rate soared. Doctors became a greater threat than diseases. Someone came along and showed that drinking water was better for you than anything doctors had to offer. Thus homeopathy was born.

Likewise Michael Pollan has assembled a compelling case that nutritional science (always suspect any discipline which feels the need to add the word 'science' to its name) is in its very early days. This lack of maturity can be seen in studies with conflicting results, a lack of predictive power, and the short shelf-life of many nutritional conclusions about what is and isn't safe to eat. Furthermore he suggests that the state of affairs is so bad that a more reliable source of information about what is healthy to eat is to look back at what we ate three generations ago, before processed foods were common.

The guidelines he lays out are good old common sense. Eat real food, not processed food-like substances. Don't eat too much. Eat mostly vegetables. Not terribly controversial stuff.

The problem is that this advice probably only applies to the present. Within a few years nutritional science will hopefully mature and start yielding consistently valuable information. Ideally, this would result in Michael Pollan's message becoming obsolete and disappearing into a footnote in history. Unfortunately history shows that this doesn't always happen. When medicine matured to the point where it was a net-positive, homeopathy failed to die out gracefully. Indeed it kept growing. Despite being thoroughly debunked, homeopathy is now a $3 billion/year business. And there are undoubtedly many cases where people have died as a result of drinking water instead of seeking medical help.

My concern with Michael Pollan's message is that although it is perfectly sound advice in the present, it won't be in the near future. It would be good if he would point out in his books that like the current conclusions of nutritional science, his own conclusions have a limited shelf-life.

One very minor nitpick with "Food Rules" is when discussing the idea that one should stop eating when one isn't hungry anymore, rather than when one is completely full. To illustrate this point he makes reference to French which has a phrase for "I'm hungry" ("J'ai faim") but no phrase for "I'm full". Instead they use the phrase "I'm no longer hungry" ("Je n'ai plus faim") which is semantically different.

There are two problems with this claim. First, it is not true. There is a commonly used phrase for "I'm full" ("Je suis plein"). Second, it's irrelevant. French has a word for "deep" ("profonde") but has no word for "shallow". Instead they use "not deep" ("peu profonde"). Something every linguist knows is that opposite states sometimes are assigned two distinct words and sometimes the 'major' state is assigned a word while the 'minor' state is referred to as a negation. Not having a dedicated word for a minor state doesn't say anything profound about the language or the culture.

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